Chemical Weapons Use In Ghouta, Syria (2013): Flawed Investigation

(analysis from a friend)

The UN Mission To the Ghouta District of Damascus Failed to Prove That Sarin was Used There (2013)

The recent report by the United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic (hereafter the UN Mission), the “Report on the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in the Ghouta Area of Damascus on 21 August 2013”,  that purports to have found evidence of the use of chemical weapons, specifically Sarin, in Damascus is deeply flawed and ultimately unconvincing. The UN Mission may have additional information that is sufficient to reinforce the documentation provided in its report in a way that makes its findings convincing, but like the secret evidence US secretary of State John Kerry claimed to have had proving 1429 deaths by Sarin (no one talks about that secret evidence anymore), secret evidence is not evidence at all.

The 41-page report its divided into three parts: (1) a two-page unnumbered statement by the UN Secretary-General about the mandate of the UN Mission; (2) a one page unnumbered letter of transmittal from the three leaders of the UN Mission; and (3) the 38-page report of the UN Mission.

The problems begin with the statement by the UN Secretary-General. His statement noted that a “relatively large scale” chemical weapons attack has taken place in Damascus and some follow-on investigation must be undertaken. However, the finding that a “relatively large scale” chemical weapons attack has taken place in Damascus is logically not the reason for the investigation, it can only be the conclusion of the investigation. It may be that the UN Secretary-General just watched American television was convinced by rebel propaganda videos of unknown truthfulness and on that basis concluded there had been a “relatively large scale” chemical weapons attack has taken place in Damascus.

But the problem with the UN Secretary-General forming this conclusion before any investigation is that the nature of investigation is transformed. Since the “relatively large scale” chemical weapons attack has taken place in Damascus cannot be disproven  by the UN Mission since it is the premise of the UN Mission, now it is only necessary to find one trace of Sarin (or related chemicals) in Damascus to prove that a “relatively large scale” chemical weapons attack has taken place in Damascus. This premise is quite incorrect and it undermines the purpose of the UN Mission.

Ultimately, as we shall see, the UN Mission did not even bother to establish whether even one death took place in Damascus from Sarin. Moreover, no uncontaminated evidence of Sarin was discovered: As we shall see, the very sloppy investigation gave every opportunity to rebels to contaminate the sites investigated on the third and fourth days of the investigation.

(1) The UN Mission’s mandate was intensely limited: can any residue of a chemical weapon be found? Nothing more. No deaths would be investigated, no autopsies, no examination of mass graves, not even review of medical records for possibly imaginary fatalities. Since the UN Mission already believed that there has been a “relatively large scale” chemical weapons attack has taken place in Damascus, it was not necessary to investigate it.

(2) Accordingly, there were no confirmed reports of deaths by the UN Mission. The report exhibits certainty about mass casualties (“numerous casualties”, Note by the Secretary General §1); (“relatively large scale”, Report, Conclusions, §27); (clinicians who responded… described seeing a large number of ill or deceased persons lying in the street”, Report, §20, 21); (and Appendix 7, table 2, victims #24, 26, 31, 32, 33, 34, 36 make unconfirmed reports of relatives dying), and therefore no investigation is needed. None of these reports are confirmed or documented much. Again: No autopsies, no examinations of mass graves: Nothing. No forensic evidence of deaths by Sarin at all was produced by the UN Mission. Not only was Kerry’s 1429 dead not verified, no single death was proven.

(3) The US-backed rebels allow almost no time for sample taking: Appendix 6: (time from completion of the first sample to the last sample: it might be reasonable to add five more minutes to each count for the first sample collected):

Aug 26, Moadamiyah, 17 minutes;
Aug 28, Zamalka/Ein Tarma, Team 1, 16 minutes
Aug 28, Zamalka/Ein Tarma, Team 2, 17 minutes
Aug 29, Zamalka/Ein Tarma, 11 minutes

These restrictions by the rebels are shocking and go a long way to discrediting the report.

Moreover, why there was a gap between the Moadamiyah sampling and the Zamalka/Al-Tarna sampling. The gap was about 44 hours (since each day’s work was limited by the rebels to four hours, which included transit time and on-site negotiations), including an entire night after the day when no sampling was done. Surely the UN Mission must have been aware that any such gap must lead to the conclusion that after the first day all samples would possibly be contaminated. This likelihood is intensified by the fact that the rebels probably knew where the second round of sampling would be conducted. The clumsy conduct of the UN Mission in Damascus makes it seem that they were almost encouraging the rebels to contaminate the Zamalka/Al-Tarna sites.

(4) If you go to Appendix 7, Table 7.1 of the report, it appears that the only environmental samples (including rocket parts) that contained Sarin were taken on the 28th and 29th. And yet, Appendix 4, Table 2, summarizing non-lethal sarin exposures, indicates that the poisoning in Moadamiyah was worse than in Zamalka/Al-Tarna. And yet, they found no environmental Sarin in Moadamiyah. Zero. If you go to Appendix 6, which describes the types of samples taken, the Moadamiyah sample-taking is more thorough (samples 3, 10, 11, 12, 13 include textiles and a slipper from an apartment, and many samples from the floors of apartments), while in Zamalka/El-Tarna almost every single sample is associated with rocket parts, metal fragments and soil associated with the impact sites. Strictly speaking, if Sarin was used there, they should have found it in Moadamiyah because their sampling was so much more thorough and they did not. In Moadamiyah, however, their sample taking methods were observed by the rebels, who surely observed the sampling teams’ preference for metal fragments (and implicitly rocket parts, which would only be found later in Zamalka/El-Tarna).

One might guess that the Zamalka/El-Tarna site was “salted” with Sarin. Interesting enough, there are 32 samples reported in Appendix 6, yet 42 samples analyzed in Appendix 7, Table 7.1. (And in that table, oddly, Laboratory 2 is a lot better at finding Sarin residues than Laboratory 1, examining the same samples.) Moreover, often, when they found sarin, the UN Mission “split” the sample into two samples for reporting purposes: This has the effect of doubling the percentage of samples that had Sarin. (They fail to note this statistical result of the manner in which they present their sample analysis.) One other small issue that none of the samples-collected can be associated with samples-testing because two different numbering systems are used.

Only the Moadamiyah environmental sampling can be assumed to be genuine and it found zero environmental Sarin. Moreover, a cautious analysis might reject Laboratory 2’s data as questionable, perhaps, overly enthusiastic; but even Laboratory 2 found no trace of Sarin at Moadamiyah.

(5) Who, exactly, were the people contaminated by sarin? Appendix 4, Table 2 finds 29-31 people (depending on the Laboratory) contaminated. But who are they? Only 2 of the 36 mentioned in Appendix 7, Table 7.2 are identified as female. This is a pretty strange sample if it is true. I would guess that a majority of people in Damascus are women. So where are they? How do we know these are local people? How do we know whether the medical people are rebels themselves? Could we be seeing biomedical sampling of rebel fighters who were contaminated in an accident when they were handling chemical weapons elsewhere (such accidents have been described in the world media), and who then were shipped in to Damascus for the better pro-rebel medical facilities?

Clearly, the biomedical data is completely separate from the environmental sampling data, and cannot be shown from the data presented to represent a population of people from Damascus at all.

And again, all the Zamalka/El-Tarna environmental data is itself suspect.

(6) One instance of the hasty and sloppy nature of the UN Mission report is its failure to provide authoritative guidance on the meaning of the data. Appendix 7, Table 7.2 fails to note what the abbreviation one of the “interesting chemicals” means: MPA. And there is no indication of what the other residues mean: there are three categories mentioned: contaminants from the production process, stabilizers, and products of the burning of Sarin. Homebrew chemical weapons might be expected to have more contaminants from the production process and crude or no stabilizers. But the report gives no clue.

(7) Neither the Secretary-General’s Note nor the letter of transmittal indicate why the UN Mission was in Damascus a few days before the attack in Ghouta: They had been requested by the Syrian government so previous chemical weapons attacks by the rebels could be documented, just as previous chemical weapons attacks by the rebels had been documented and confirmed.

The more attention that is focused on the UN Mission report, the poorer the sample collection, sample analysis and overall analysis by the UN Mission appears. The biomedical data could be almost entirely from an all-male rebel military unit (with a just two females as collateral damage) contaminated in an accidental spill of Sarin somewhere outside Damascus, and the only environmental samples that we can be sure are uncontaminated (from Moadamiyah on the first day of the sampling) show no Sarin residues at all.

The UN Mission report should not be accepted as evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Damascus and should not be accepted as evidenced of even one death from chemical weapons in Damascus. Maybe the UN Mission did a thorough investigation and found hard evidence, but if it exists, it does not appear in the report. The UN Mission was a failure.